My exhibition, Transition Related Surgery: The Fight For Access, launched earlier this month. This was a culmination of 21 months of work. This exhibition served as an avenue to explore the ways in which trans history and trans stories can and should be told. Because of this, I felt it was appropriate to discuss some of the choices I made in this reflection.
Transition Related Surgery was largely inspired by an exhibition that popped up in the Spring of 2019 while I was finishing my first year of my Masters. The exhibition, titled Trans Porn Imaginaries: A Half-Century of Transvestite Lawmen and Gendertrash from Hell, covered transgender pornography, with materials coming from the ArQuives, the Mark S. Bonham Sexual Representation Collection, and other collections. In her article for Transgender Studies Quarterly, curator Laura Horak describes the exhibit as “the ways in which trans erotic representation intersects with BDSM, gay liberation, Playboy’s vision of straight male sexual cosmopolitanism, the feminist porn movement, and sex worker politics.” (Horak, 275) This was an exhibition that spanned a wall and two display cases; it did not know what it wanted to be. When I first saw the exhibition, I was only a few months into thinking on what a transgender museum studies might look like, and I ended up walking away feeling incredibly underwhelmed.
Transgender pornography is a fantastic topic for an exhibition. Porn and sex work have impacted trans lives in innumerable ways. For some, it is through porn that they find their own trans existence. Others, it is one of the few sources of income that has historically been available to out trans people. Additionally, there are a lot of negatives that allow for a fascinating nuanced discussion, such as the fetishization of trans people. There are so many ways that one could take an exhibition on transgender pornography, but this exhibition did none of those.
The exhibition felt like a rote display of objects with very little interpretation linking them together to tell a comprehensible narrative. It placed composer and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos’ Playboy interview in which she comes out as transgender alongside VHS tapes of trans porn star Buck Angel. It felt disparate and unfocused, clearly lacking a unifying big idea. But what I felt it was lacking the most was a voice for trans people to tell their stories. Trans bodies were present, but their voices on this matter were not.
This brings to mind what Julia Serano discusses in Whipping Girl, specifically the chapter “Ungendering in Art and Academia”. In this chapter, Serano, a foundational writer on transfeminism, describes the ways in which transgender and intersex identities get used by authors and academics to tell stories that do not explore transgender and intersex lives. They become a “device to challenge the couple’s relationship” (Serano, 197) or an opportunity to deconstruct gender. The stories that end up getting told are the ones coming from outsider perspectives, where the lessons to be gleaned from their telling are not aimed at transgender or intersex audiences, but at a cisgender audience. This is what viewing Trans Porn Imaginaries felt like. If it tried to say something to transgender observers beyond “trans people are sexualized sometimes”, it failed.
This came to inform one of the foundations of my curatorial spirit to this day; trans people should be able to gain something from exhibitions on them. While Horak was “concerned with not visually assaulting trans, Two-Spirit, and nonbinary viewers,“ (Horak, 280) If a trans person walks away from an exhibition on trans people or any such trans experience and they end up feeling underwhelmed, that is a failed exhibition. This is not to say that cisgender audiences should never be thought about when it comes to transgender exhibitions, just that transgender visitors need to be considered especially when telling their stories. There is a dearth of transgender visibility on the walls of museums today and when the only times they get to see themselves reflected back is in the usual “here’s what it means to be transgender” exhibitions that are not even aimed at them, it feels less like representation and more a modern day freak show.
This mentality came to be at the very heart of my exhibition. If I was going to make an exhibition about transgender people, it was going to be for transgender people. This guided how the themes and narrative behind the exhibition. In making transgender people the target audience, it allowed the exhibition to also take on a more direct transpositive approach.
Transgender inclusion can be very controversial. Right now, right-wing groups are attempting to use transgender people as a wedge issue through transphobic attempts to take away our rights. I had come out when Jordan Peterson’s rhetoric was at its peak. I wanted to avoid any opportunities for transphobic conversations to come up and having transgender people as the target audience was the perfect solution. If the exhibition is designed with the idea that transgender people are going to see it and get something out of it, then the exhibition must start with a baseline acceptance of transgender people. There would be absolutely no room for questioning whether transgender people are the gender they say they are.
I tried to approach my exhibition as a culmination of all the theoretical work I had done through my research. It was an opportunity to make manifest the bridge between transgender studies and museum studies that I had been exploring. At the heart of that was the feeling of dissatisfaction that came out of Trans Porn Imaginaries and trying to learn how to do improve on that exhibition. This came to inform the two main tenants of my curatorial practice; that transgender people should be the primary audience when constructing such narratives, and that they should be able to feel some kind of connection to the materials and stories on display. Transgender voices are seldom heard in the museum field, and it is my hope that this exhibition can be some step towards more visibility and awareness of how to better discuss transgender issues in the field.
Horak, Laura. “Curating Trans Imaginaries”. Transgender Studies Quarterly Volume 7, Number 2 (May, 2020): 274-287.
Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2007.
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Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.